In January, six teenagers in Greensburg, Penn.—three girls and three boys all under the age of 18—were charged with child pornography for sending and receiving nude pictures of themselves via cellphone after the images were discovered by a high school teacher. Within weeks, teenage “sexting,” to use the catchy coinage, had become a seeming epidemic in the U.S., with a flurry of criminal charges, ranging from possession of child pornography to the lesser felony of obscenity, being laid in more than a dozen states.
With the concerned clucking that inevitably attends coverage of teenage sexuality, the U.S media—from Newsweek to Katie Couric—was all over it. Fox News called sexting “the new craze all over the country among 11- to 17-year-old adolescents.” The New York Post included “evidence” in the form of photos of scantily clad girls.
Yet the statistical proof of a sexting epidemic is scant: one lone survey sponsored by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unwanted Pregnancy and CosmoGirl.com, which reported that 22 per cent of girls and 18 per cent of boys have electronically sent or posted nude or semi-nude images, even though 75 per cent knew it could have serious negative consequences.
That kids use what they believe is the private domain of their cellphones to text racy pictures is hardly surprising. What U.S. law enforcement views as pornography, teenagers see as high-tech flirting, oblivious to its dangerous consequences. Facebook and MySpace are filled with groups like “I’ve Sent Naked Pictures of Myself Over the Phone.” Nor is it shocking that a teenager who receives a naked image is tempted to share it—which is where the risk begins.
“These kinds of images are so ubiquitous, teens don’t see them as shocking,” says M. Gigi Durham, author of The Lolita Effect: The Media Sexualization of Young Girls and What We Can Do About It. “They see them as an acceptable way of representing themselves.”
Sexting is certainly a reminder of how mysteriously porous electronic communication can be. Teenagers’ casual willingness to provide explicit images of themselves only heightens the risk. A 14-year-old Florida boy charged this week with transmitting pornography after he sent a photo of his genitalia to a female classmate explained he did it because he was “bored.”
The discussion has yet to migrate north of the border, where police say sexting isn’t on their radar. “We expect to see it, but we haven’t seen it,” says Det.-Const. Dana Boyko of the Toronto Police Service’s sex crimes unit, child exploitation section. Boyko regularly speaks to teenagers in Grades 7 to 12 and recently asked them about sexting. “They’d heard of it,” she says. “But the general view was that it had been hyped by the media, like it’s the new thing to worry about—sharks, killer bees, sexting.”
Obviously, teenagers might be reluctant to tell a cop they’re sending or receiving naked self-portraits. Yet an informal poll of nine teenagers ranging in age from 13 to 18 yields similar findings. One 16-year-old girl says she’s never heard the term, though she didn’t doubt it happens. “But no girls I know would do it,” she says. Another girl expressed frustration with the focus it’s received: “I’m really tired about stories that make all teenage girls look like sluts,” she says.
In Canada, it’s not illegal for two teenagers under the age of 18 to carry naked photographs of one another, provided it’s for private viewing only. “The Supreme Court says that minors can possess sexual images of themselves and others in consensual activity, but when it’s distributed, it becomes child pornography,” explains Toronto criminal lawyer Frank Addario. “The bright line between harmless and criminal,” he says, “is whether the photo depicts the nakedness for a sexual purpose. If you have an image of a naked teen zipping around the Internet, a police officer somewhere is going to see it and lay a charge.” And that charge, he says, would be against the minor who distributed it, not the minor who’d created the photograph.
Boyko says her colleagues have debated how they’d handle a sexting complaint, which raises thorny questions: “Do we really want to charge a child for distribution or possession of child porn?” she asks. “We’d have to look at the circumstances, to see if the situation was abusive. In some cases it might be charges had to be laid, in others that it’s just a lesson.” Teaching a lesson is what U.S. authorities are trying to do, though charging a child as a sexual offender is a harsh remedy with lifelong implications.
Durham believes the conversation about sexting is an important one, even though she questions whether it’s as common as reports suggest. The media focus is useful, she says: “It’s raising interesting legal questions about how, as a society, we should deal with the impacts of new technologies on our lives, and on kids’ lives in particular.”